Cheltenham Festival: Willie Mullins’ top contenders rated or slated

PPTV's Robert Catterson takes a look at Willie Mullins' main hopes & weighs up whether they're bankers or blowouts.

Willie-Mullins-Sandown-Jan-2019

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As it stands, some three weeks before the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, a couple of markets already look decided. Ireland are long odds on to win the Paddy Power Prestbury Cup and after his domination of the Dublin Racing Festival, Willie Mullins is short odds to be champion trainer at the meeting for the ninth time.

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Ireland Prestbury Cup

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UK Prestbury Cup

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Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival Top Trainer

Mullins’ team been on fire in the lead-up to the Cheltenham Festival and as it stands, the 12-time Irish champion trainer has 10 runners priced at 7/2 or shorter for Festival glory. There’s little doubt that most will be expected to win. But the question right now is – are they Bankers or Blowouts?

APPRECIATE IT

He was one of Willie Mullins’ stronger ‘bankers’ of the Festival last season, but was collared by stable companion Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper, who showed he was the real deal when beating subsequent Grade 1 winning Bob Olinger on his only start over hurdles. Appreciate It has already bagged two Grade 1 prizes over timber, but wasn’t as impressive on the eye at the Dublin Racing Festival and Ballyadam got a lot closer to him than he did at Christmas.

It must also be noted also that all of Appreciate It’s best form has come with plenty of cut in the ground and being by Jeremy, that’s no surprise. You’ve got to go back to 2013 the last time the winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle ran in the Champion Bumper the year before and the likelihood of better spring ground is a major worry for Appreciate It. Throw in the fact that there are genuine challengers in Ballyadam, Metier, the unbeaten Bareback Jack and Sunday’s Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory among others – he’s worth taking on.

Verdict: Blowout

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Appreciate It Supreme Novices Hurdle - Non Runner Money Back

ENERGUMENE

Willie Mullins’ recent record in the Arkle Trophy is second to none, with four victories in the last six years. And following three electric wins over fences, Energumene has got a serious chance of giving him another success in the two-mile spectacle.

His first two wins this season showed that he was an above average novice but the manner of his Irish Arkle Trophy victory was on a different level. There is a some controversy regarding his winning time, compared to Chacun Pour Soi’s on the same day, but there’s no doubting it was an excellent performance. Saying that, he will have to lower the colours of Siskin, last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner and that race has been a fine guide to proving the winner of this race in the past.

Siskin has already shown that he could be better over fences and is a worthy favourite. And then there’s Allmankind, who’s already a Grade 1 winner over fences and blew away Sky Pirate last week at Warwick. In any other year, Energumene would be banker material. However, with Siskin on the scene, he’ll have a hell of a fight on his hooves.

Verdict: Blowout

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Energumene Arkle Chase - Non Runner Money Back

ConcertistaJan21

CONCERTISTA

You can’t beat a horse which thrives at the Cheltenham Festival and for Concertista, she has excelled on both of her visits to Prestbury Park, most notable when slamming her rivals in last year’s Mares Novices’ Hurdle. Since then, she has bagged Graded prizes at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown impressively.

Mullins has won this contest nine times from 13 runnings and that alone will make her very hard to beat. Dan Skelton has suggested he’s leaning towards the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle with Roksana, but the 2019 winner would pose the biggest threat to Concertista if she runs in this.

Dame De Compagnie would be an intriguing contender if she ran, but given her Cheltenham form and Mullins’ dominance in this race, Concertista definitely ticks all the boxes.

Verdict: Banker

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Concertista Mares Hurdle - Non Runner Money Back

GAILLARD DU MESNIL

While Willie Mullins may only have won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle twice in the last decade, he’s managed to have one finish in the places on eight occasions in that time. That bodes well for Gaillard Du Mesnil, who is almost certain to go off favourite after a brilliant performance at the Dublin Racing Festival.

He’s shown massive improvement from Christmas beating a rock-solid field very easily. He takes on two strong novices in Bob Olinger and Bravemansgame and both are to be feared. Given that Bob Olinger’s Grade 1 win doesn’t appear to stack up as well as Bravemansgame’s Challow Hurdle success, Paul Nicholls’ charge probably offers the bigger threat to the Mullins runner.

There’s no doubting that Gaillard Du Mesnil is a horse going places, but based on the likely opposition, he can’t be considered a banker – even though he may well win.

Verdict: Blowout

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Gaillard Du Mesnil Ballymore Novices Hurdle - Non Runner Money Back

Monkfish

MONKFISH

Not since Denman in the 2006/07 season has a horse dominated the staying novice chase division as much as Monkfish. The one thing that the Willie Mullins-trained chestnut has over Paul Nicholls’ legendary chaser is that he’s already a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. Last season’s victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle proved that Monkfish was a Grade 1 performer, but his three performances to date over fences have put him on a different level to the likely opposition.

Already, he appears to be scaring away the opposition in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase with Royal Pagaille and Latest Exhibition looking likely to go elsewhere while The Big Breakaway, Sporting John and Fiddlerontheroof have all been far from perfect over fences.

Paul Nicholls hasn’t committed to running Next Destination in this race and Coko Beach and Colreevy aren’t certain runners either. So that possibly just leaves the inexperienced Eklat De Rire as the only serious threat to Monkfish and that depends on whether he’s up to Monkfish’s standard or not.

For many, Monkfish is in the Envoi Allen bracket already and from what we’ve seen this season, it’s hard to disagree.

Verdict: Banker

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Monkfish Brown Advisory Novices' Chase - Non Runner Money Back

CHACUN POUR SOI

Given that Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min all ran in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, it’s hard to believe that Willie Mullins has still to win the great two-mile spectacle. However, many believe that record will change this time around.

Having missed out on the morning of the race due to a stone bruise 12 months ago, Chacun Pour Soi should finally get his chance to shine on the biggest stage of all at Prestbury Park. If his latest two runs are anything to go by, he’s going to take some stopping. His Cork win was nothing to get excited about but his Christmas success was a huge step forward and his display in winning at the Dublin Racing Festival was the icing on the cake. He ticks all the right boxes, but the lack of opposition is also why he’s so short in the betting.

Nicky Henderson has confirmed that Altior will head straight to Cheltenham on the back of a defeat at Christmas and Nube Negra has still to prove that he’s up to Grade 1 standard while defending champion Politologue appeared to have no excuses for his defeat at Ascot last month.

There’s no reason to suggest why Fakir D’oudairies or Put The Kettle On will reverse the Leopardstown form with the favourite and First Flow has never won on ground better than soft. On form and figures, Chacun Pour Soi sets the standard and with question marks over the opposition – he’ll be very hard to beat.

Verdict: Banker

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Chacun Pour Soi Champion Chase - Non Runner Money Back

KILCRUIT

Every so often, we’re blown away by the performance of a youngster on the track and Kilcruit’s win at Leopardstown earlier this month was something special – on the eye anyway. The time of his previous Navan win had indicated that he was potentially top drawer and in beating several winners on his latest start, he proved that he was up to the task.

However, Patrick Mullins’ comments afterwards regarding the pace as ‘Grand Annual standard’ suggests that our eyes may just have deceived us and the remainder of the field were out on their feet in the closing stages. So, on that basis, is he opposable in the Champion Bumper?

There are other reasons to suggest he is and two of those are courtesy of Gordon Elliott’s contenders in Sir Gerhard and Three Stripe Life. The former has shown a huge cruising speed, along with an excellent finishing kick on both of his starts to date, while the time of latter’s win at Navan last month, compared to the hurdles on the same card, read very favourably. Throw in the unbeaten English challenger Eileendover and we’ve potentially got a top-class renewal of the Champion Bumper. For those reasons, Kilcruit can’t be classed as banker material.

Verdict: Blowout

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Kilcruit Champion Bumper - Non Runner Money Back

AL BOUM PHOTO

History is very much against Al Boum Photo’s three-peat in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which would make him just the fifth three-time winner of the famous race. But to be honest, statistics have never stopped Willie Mullins when it comes to re-writing the history books.

So what can beat him? The market suggests that A Plus Tard is a major danger and while the form of his Savills Chase win has been since franked by Kemboy, he still has to prove that he stays this extended 3m 2f trip.

You have to remember that he was well-beaten on his only previous attempt beyond three miles as a novice. Speaking of novices, the current third favourite Royal Pagaille may pose the biggest threat to Al Boum Photo winning again. His three wins this season have been vastly impressive on the eye but it’s remarkable to think that a horse that won only once in his first 12 starts is now challenging for National Hunt racing’s most prized contest. He’s improved immensely but is he up to this class?

Champ’s Newbury run on Sunday puts him back in the picture after a stop-start preparation while Kemboy has disappointed on all of his four starts at Cheltenham. Then you’re left with Native River and Minella Indo, who are both likely to struggle on their most recent form. Sometimes when the answer is too obvious, we tend to look elsewhere. But when it comes to Al Boum Photo, when it’s not broke then why try and fix it?

Verdict: Banker

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Al Boum Photo Gold Cup - Non Runner Money Back

BILLAWAY

It’s quite surprising that many punters feel that Billaway comes into the ‘banker’ bracket, having jumped so inadequately in last year’s Foxhunters’ Chase, He heads into this year’s race with two wins under his belt – but he may just be beatable and here’s why.

His defeat of Staker Wallace at Naas last month wasn’t anywhere as clear-cut as it was 12 months earlier, when he beat the same horse by eight lengths, and his jumping was far from clinical either.

It’s also worth noting that both Stand Up And Fight and It Came To Pass have beaten him in the past 12 months, both of which are likely to re-oppose, and the likes of Red Indian, Mighty Stowaway and The Worlds End are all fascinating runners based on their best form under rules.

So, just like 12 months ago, Billaway has it all to do to prove that he’s the king of the hunter chasers.

Verdict: Blowout

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Billaway St James' Place Hunters Chase - Non Runner Money Back

ELIMAY

Already, the Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase has a very Willie Mullins look to it with two of his elite mares topping the betting. Elimay backers will have been glad to see her boost her festival credentials at Naas and she went there having pushed current Ryanair Chase favourite Allaho all the way at Thurles previously.

As it stands, she’s three from four over fences but appears to be getting better with every run and the conditions of this race look ideal for her too. Stablemate Colreevy has already won three times over fences, including at Grade 1 level, but she may rock up at Limerick instead of the Festival.

It’s also unlikely that Put The Kettle On will take her chance, with the Champion Chase seemingly her preferred target, so that leaves Annie Mac as the main threat to the favourite. Her two latest wins gives her a chance, but her disappointing efforts at Cheltenham previously are a big worry.

Shattered Love has ground to make up with Elimay from their Naas duel earlier this month, when getting 5lbs, while Dame De Compagnie’s latest effort at Sandown left a lot to be desired, particularly on the jumping front. The inaugural running of the Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase looks Elimay’s to lose.

Verdict: Banker

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Elimay Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase - Non Runner Money Back

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